Analysis: First Week of Training Camp Gives Clarity to How Seahawks' Defense Will Operate in 2021

The 2021 Seahawks' defensive picture is growing clearer. Seattle's training camp has revealed vital details about the personnel and how each player will be deployed. Matty F. Brown explains.
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Almost 5,000 miles from Seattle, I'm slowly but surely gaining clarity on how the 2021 Seahawks' defense will operate. That’s thanks to the live streams of practices and press conferences. The videos, broadcast on the Seahawks’ official YouTube channel, have revealed major details and answered pertinent questions.

Let's get into a few of my takeaways...

Bear Fronts Continue as Base

Firstly, Seattle’s usage of “bear” defensive fronts as its base has been all but confirmed. These will be the fronts the team employs on early downs in a neutral game script, the defensive family called “stick” that the Seahawks have built and will roster their front seven around.

When defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was asked about Aldon Smith and Alton Robinson's abilities to play the strong-side linebacker spot despite being regarded more as LEO defensive ends, his response was illuminating and explained the bear thinking.

"Fortunately for us," Norton began. "They've been able to play both sides: the SAM and the rushing LEO position. They're light bodies on both sides. One rushes a lot, one pass drops a lot. But at the same time, they're doing the same things. So they're smart enough—and flexible enough—to play both sides."

Norton mentioned “sides” because both of these positions in bear are often the width of the defense, playing down at the line of scrimmage in a “5-2” look. As I tweeted on May 15, “lines blur” between the SAM and the LEO, especially in these bear fronts.

EARLY BEAR
STICK FRONT

Generally speaking: when running cover 3 sky, the SAM will go to the boundary and pass drop; the LEO will align to the field and rush. When the Seahawks go into cover 2, the SAM will align to the field and pass drop and the LEO will be to the boundary and rush (like the image above).

Carroll has said similar things to Norton on the SAM and LEO roles.

"Both positions call for outside rush ability, and so both guys drop at times,” Carroll told reporters during rookie minicamp in May. “The SAM position drops more than the LEO position, so is a little more featured as a pass defender, on early downs, and so really the demands of it can crossover.”

On August 1, free agent arrival Robert Nkemdiche was asked about his role in the Seahawks' defense. 

"We kind of play a similar front [to my time in Arizona],” answered Nkemdiche. “I played 3 or 4, 4i, do some 6, you know? It's really all the same, really, for what we do."

Not only did Nkemdiche describe the 5-technique, or big end role in Seattle—by talking about “some 6”—he tellingly began with chatter about the 3-technique and 4/4i alignments. For a big end to be at 3-technique, aligned on the outside shoulder of a guard, Seattle must be in bear fronts.

Carroll confirmed that Nkemdiche is a big end and also that the 26-year old—who turns 27 in September—will be deployed at 3-technique. 

Questioned about L.J. Collier’s role, Carroll replied: “We're playing him at the 5-technique spot and the 3-technique is what we do, and that position has to swing back and forth. ... Robert [Nkemdiche] is going to be at that same spot for right now.”

Nkemdiche saying that Seattle is running “a similar front” to his experience with the Cardinals is another strong indicator. James Bettcher was the defensive coordinator during Nkemdiche's time in Arizona; Bettcher runs a 3-4 defense.

Carroll will not forget his 4-3 roots, however. He still calls the big end spot the “5-technique” because that’s where the defensive end aligns in 4-3 shaded fronts before reducing down and helping with the B-gap bubble. 

Plus, Carroll will get into some reduced 4-3 under and over looks when faced with heavier personnel. Finally, the big end will still be asked to kick out from 3-technique to 5-technique (outside shoulder of the tackle) with Seattle bumping into a 4-3 over look for adjustments to empty formations and generate easier pass rush.

However, the bear is here to stay, especially with how 11 personnel-heavy the NFL is right now. This is the most 3-4 the Seahawks will have ever looked. 

For more explaining on the Seahawks’ defensive line and 5-technique/big end role, check out my breakdown from back in March.

And for more elaboration on the Seahawks’ SAM linebacker position, check out this article.

Robert Nkemdiche: First String Interior Defensive Lineman?

Even with Seattle sprinkling players into the first string for different days of practice, it’s still noteworthy that its bear front walkthrough versus different run looks on August 3 featured Robert Nkemdiche with the first team trio. Here’s how that shook out:

First string:

  • BE Robert Nkemdiche
  • NT Al Woods
  • 3t Poona Ford

Second string:

  • BE L.J. Collier
  • NT Bryan Mone
  • 3t Myles Adams

Third string:

  • BE Jarrod Hewitt
  • NT Walter Palmore
  • 3t Cedrick Lattimore

The 0-technique nose tackle looks to mirror step with the center and knock him back before looking to win to the backside A-gap. A 3-technique will take a 6-inch power step and read the offensive guard’s angle of departure. A 4i-technique will mirror step with the offensive tackle and knockback—it looked like certain players in the above video were doing that. 

Kerry Hyder: Wide Rusher

You’ll notice that Kerry Hyder, signed to a two-year, $6.8 million contract this offseason, is missing from the above list. Given Hyder’s past experience on the interior defensive line, many thought that the 30-year old would fit into the big end role in Seattle. However, Hyder’s best pass rushing snaps have come on the edge of the defensive line and he is starting off as a wide rusher in Seattle. On August 3, he worked with the SAM/LEO types:

“You know, as a D-lineman, that's anywhere in the league, you set the edge and rush the passer,” Hyder told reporters. “And [the Seahawks are] not asking me to do anything that's out of my zone or anything like that.” 

While Hyder may very well play some 3-technique in clear passing situations, it looks like he is firmly being kept on the edge. Deep at defensive end, the Seahawks may even look for Hyder to play in a nickel-focused role like Michael Bennett filled in 2013. Meanwhile, Seattle will be safe in the knowledge that, if required, Hyder—and Rasheem Green—can also move into the early down big end role.

SAM/LEO Competition... My Head Hurts

Lastly, the August 3 practice finally gave us a clear idea of just who exactly is participating in the SAM linebacker competition. 

"A lot of really good football players,” assessed Ken Norton Jr. “Some really good competition: Darrell [Taylor] is coming back from his rookie year, although this is really his rookie year now because he didn’t play much last year. Aldon [Smith], Benson [Mayowa], we have a lot of really good candidates. It’s making us better; we have a lot of really good competition.”

Seattle is trying to see if guys are able to play both SAM and LEO. In an ideal world: they want to have enough of a viable pass rush threat at SAM, while possessing enough of a viable pass drop threat at LEO. Then, they can pressure with the five men down at the line of scrimmage all rushing, or change which guy drops in a four man rush once the offense has started overcompensating to the LEO’s side.

As Carroll said in rookie minicamp, “The guys can really be able to double dip here [at SAM and LEO], and so we can get the right combinations in, guys on the correct side, maximizing guys' strengths and all that. That's really what we're doing right now.”

The Seahawks head coach followed these comments up the next day with the SAM/LEO plan: “We're evaluating the guys that are playing both positions to see how much of a crossover they're able to make and see how much flexibility they give us.”

As I said previously, this is going to look more and more like a 3-4 defense, although the built-in adjustments will still be 4-3 based. Confused? Read my articles, hit me up on Twitter @mattyfbrown, and keep your eyes peeled for more long form articles on Carroll’s history of bear defensive fronts.